For a modest investment, the Pinellas County Commission is poised to make a significant difference in the health of students in the county's public schools. The commissioners tentatively agreed Thursday to slightly increase property taxes so a full-time nurse can be based at every public school in the county. This should be the obligation of the Florida Legislature, and it is another example where local government and local taxpayers step in to meet a real need.
Like many other school districts in Florida, Pinellas has many schools that share nurses who rotate from place to place. Only about half of the schools have full-time nurses, and which schools have them are often determined by which ones have students with particular medical needs. For example, nurses are stationed at schools where students need help with feeding tubes, catheterization or insulin injections. Yet about one-third of the district's 103,000 students have health conditions ranging from severe allergies to asthma to cardiac conditions. There is an obvious need for more accessible, readily available care.
Commissioner Karen Seel led the effort that would place a nurse at every public school. She notes that the county charter makes clear that public health is a county responsibility, and she proposed a slight increase in the property tax rate allocated to the county health department to pay for several dozen additional school nurses. Commissioners embraced the budget proposal Thursday that would raise $1.5 million in 2017-18, which would increase property taxes on the average Pinellas home by $2.79 a year. That's a small price for a significant return that would benefit thousands of children throughout the county.
With Congress stalled over repealing or improving the Affordable Care Act and the Florida Legislature failing to properly invest in health care, Pinellas commissioners are trying to fill the void like many of their colleagues in Florida and the nation. In addition to providing for more school nurses, commissioners agreed Thursday to invest in a variety of other ways to improve public health. They reached a bipartisan consensus to spend more money in 2017-18 to fight opioid abuse and to improve access to dental care for the poor in Clearwater and south St. Petersburg. They also agreed to spend $476,000 in reserves to help draw more federal matching money for the county's 10 Community Health Centers that treat everyone regardless of their ability to pay. Other counties are scrambling to find local matching money for their community health centers, whose long-term federal funding also remains at risk.
These local government budget discussions are not occurring in a vacuum. The Florida Legislature foolishly placed a constitutional amendment on the 2018 ballot that would increase the homestead exemption by $25,000, an unnecessary tax cut when local governments still have not fully recovered from the economic recession. Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Pinellas Health Department, promised commissioners Thursday that if the homestead amendment passes he would cut spending elsewhere and protect the investment in school nurses.
The Pinellas commissioners' consensus on slightly raising property taxes to ensure there is a nurse in every public school is a smart move that would solidify a partnership with the school district, which already spends more than $3 million a year on school nurses. It would help Pinellas catch up with Hillsborough County, which has two nurses in every high school and a nurse or a certified nursing assistant in each elementary or middle school. And it would meet a need that should be met by the state. As Commissioner Ken Welch said, "A lot of folks are giving up on different levels of government because they keep seeing the same thing. … How long are we going to wait?"